American Sociological Association

Parents, Partners, Plans, and Promises: The Relational Work of Student Loan Borrowing

When does student loan borrowing prompt relational work between borrowers and family members? Research on student loans has focused on quantitative estimation of the effects of borrowing on educational attainment, economic well-being, health, and life-course milestones. Drawing on 60 interviews with lawyers in the northeastern United States, the authors argue that student loans also have underappreciated relational effects, even for relatively privileged borrowers. Relational work around student loans is particularly visible during the decision to borrow, when establishing partnerships, and in transitioning to parenthood. It becomes prominent when there is a mismatch between family members’ economic expectations of one another and when shared expectations are difficult to fulfill. Scholars have implicitly assumed that difficulty repaying explains the impact of borrowing on family formation. Attention to relational work, however, shows how debt can create stressors even for borrowers capable of repayment and may help explain cross-group variation in how debt affects family decisions.


Abby Stivers and Elizabeth Popp Berman